Skin cancer can be a deadly condition, but when caught early, the chances of survival are very high. One of the best tools in a dermatologist’s arsenal for Catching skin cancer early is the full-body skin exam. At Affiliated Dermatology, we recommend everyone is examined once a year. Many of our patients have questions about what’s involved in a skin exam, so we’ve put together this guide to help you better understand the process.

What is a Full-Body Skin Exam?

A full-body skin exam is a comprehensive examination of the skin. A dermatologist or other healthcare provider will look over your entire body to check for signs of skin cancer or other skin conditions. This visual inspection of your skin will thoroughly cover often neglected areas such as the scalp, behind the ears, under the arms, and between the toes.

Because of the importance of catching skin cancer early, a full-body skin exam can make a crucial difference in health outcomes. Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the world. Early detection increases the chances of successful treatment. This is especially true for melanoma, which is one of the most deadly forms of skin cancer.

During a thorough full-body skin exam, skin cancer isn’t the only ailment that can be detected. Eczema, psoriasis, and skin infections can also be identified during the exam. Although these conditions are much less serious than skin cancer, early detection and treatment still lead to the best outcome.

Why Does Your Doctor Do a Full-Body Skin Exam?

Despite being a deadly form of cancer, the odds of surviving melanoma are extremely good if it’s caught early enough. The same is true for other skin cancers. Therefore, the most common reason for a full-body exam is to detect and treat the cancers early.

Some conditions, such as actinic keratosis, can be precursors to cancer. Actinic keratosis causes the skin to become scaly after prolonged exposure to the sun. Catching these types of conditions before they become cancer can stave off the threat entirely.

Annual full-body skin exams also give your dermatologist a complete picture of how your skin’s health has changed. By tracking these changes, doctors can better understand your skin’s overall condition and make more informed decisions regarding treatments.

Although everyone should be examined once a year, it’s especially important for those with the following risk factors:

  • History of unusual moles
  • Tanning bed use
  • More than 50 moles
  • A suspicious-looking mole
  • Blonde or red hair
  • Light eye color
  • Skin that freckles or sunburns easily
  • Family history of melanoma
  • Personal history of sunburns

What Happens During a Full-Body Skin Exam?

Although thorough, the process of a full-body skin exam is straightforward. Because it’s a full-body exam, you’ll first be asked to undress and wear a medical gown. The doctor will uncover only the body part they’re working on.

The doctor will examine your skin from head to toe with the gown on. They’ll go over every part of the body, taking time to more closely examine any questionable areas. For certain lesions, the dermatologist may use a tool called a dermatoscope for a closer look. This handheld imaging device can provide a closer look than the naked eye alone.

The doctor will record any notable moles or lesions for comparison with future full-body skin exams during the examination. For highly-suspicious areas, the doctor may perform a biopsy to check for cancer.

How Long Will the Exam Take?

The exact length of the exam depends on several factors. Your skin type, the number of moles or lesions that need to be checked and documented, and the need for biopsies all factor in how long the procedure lasts. For most people, the process will be over in 10-30 minutes.

How to Prepare for a Full-body Skin Exam

The goal of a full-body skin exam is to discover any skin cancer that may be present and uncover whatever other dermatological conditions you may be experiencing. Given how dangerous some skin cancers can be, this is a potentially lifesaving procedure. The best way to ensure the exam is as thorough and effective as it can be is to make sure to prepare adequately.

What Do You Wear for a Full-body Skin Check?

They say you should always dress for success. When it comes to full-body skin exams, success happens when the dermatologist has as complete a view of your skin as possible so they can find any abnormalities. Several items people typically wear can obstruct this view. Makeup, jewelry, heavy body creams, and lotions can all obscure the dermatologist’s view and impede a thorough exam.

You’ll be asked to change into a medical gown when you arrive. Sometimes, when thoroughness is required, and you’re comfortable with it, you might be asked to disrobe fully and provided with a paper gown. If you are, your private areas are generally covered during the exam unless a specific need needs to be addressed. Because you’ll be changing into and out of the clothing you wear to the exam, you should choose easy clothes to get into and out of.

How Often Should You Get a Full-body Skin Exam?

Your risk factor for skin cancer will be the ultimate determiner of how frequently you should get a full-body skin exam. Those with a family or personal history of skin cancer and those who have many moles or freckles should have a skin check more often; once per year is a typical recommendation. After your first exam, the dermatologist can tell you the best timeframe.

It would be best not to rely exclusively on dermatologists for skin exams. Self-exams are also an incredibly effective way to protect yourself from skin cancer. You should check your skin about once a month or so, looking for new moles or changes to existing moles. Pay attention to any changes in size, shape, color, or sensation. If any changes occur, report them to your dermatologist promptly to see if they are something to be concerned about.

What Age Should You Start Getting Full-body Skin Exams?

Much like the frequency of the exams, the age at which you start getting them depends a lot on your risk factors. For most people, it’s recommended that you start regular skin checks by the age of 20-30. Those with a family history of skin cancer, fair skin, or a history of extensive sun exposure should start earlier. If you are unsure of your risk factors, an initial consultation with a dermatologist will provide that information and allow you to schedule a full-body exam if needed.

For younger patients, parents should monitor their skin for any unusual moles or changes to the skin and contact a dermatologist if something is found. These checks are also a great time to educate your children on sun protection and skin health.

Schedule Your Full-Body Exam or Consultation Today

If the time has come for you to have your next full-body skin exam, or if you just want a consultation to see when you should start having them, the dermatologist at Affiliated Dermatology can help. You can schedule an appointment online or text us at (480) 405-3877 to make one. If you have any other questions or concerns, please contact us


Image Credit: Wavebreakmedia, Shutterstock

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